Pop quiz hotshot: what do Captain Steve Rogers, Dr Henry “Indiana” Jones, Rory off “Doctor Who”, and a protester at a recent anti-Trump rally all have in common?
If you answered “they’ve all punched Nazis in the face”, then well done, have a biscuit.
Like most other people not on the far right, the sight of neo-Nazi Richard Spencer getting punched in the bonce by a random protester while in the middle of a TV interview both made me laugh and warmed the cockles of my heart.
I can’t pretend I wouldn’t have been tempted to try and do something similar if I’d had that opportunity – I’ve been in a stand-off with the BNP in the pub once, and at the front of a UAF march that definitely had the potential to turn nasty when the knuckle draggers and football hooligans on their side started throwing bottles and trying to push through the barriers to us. Although neither ultimately escalated into violence, I would have been prepared to punch Nazis if it came to it.
However, in the heat of the moment when you are scared and fired up and ready to punch some Nazis, it isn’t really a rational strategic decision is it? It may be the right thing to do in that situation, but it isn’t a considered reflection on how we beat the far right, much less on how we deal with radicalisation, and it doesn’t really achieve anything more lasting than a video clip and a few days of pain for the Nazi.
Once I stopped laughing at the clip, I started to think about this. Since it went viral, I have seen a lot of people debating the ethics of punching Nazis, often presenting it in absolute terms that if you don’t want to go punch them, you basically want to go cuddle them and see fascism as a legitimate view. This is a ludicrous straw man argument, but increasingly the debate is being caricatured in those terms.
Some websites and Facebook pages have even called for those on the left / anti-fascists to basically become vigilantes targeting the far right with organised campaigns of violence and intimidation. They also frequently attack those they term “liberals” for what they perceive (sometimes correctly, sometimes unfairly) as weakness to fascism and hypocrisy, particularly in what they see as a prioritisation of the law (especially property law and individual rights) over the moral imperative of fighting fascism.
I think these criticisms are misguided, and don’t consider the practicality of their proposals.
Any effective anti-fascist movement needs to be as broad as possible and build support from all sections of society to speak out and ostracise the ideas of the far right – shutting out liberals, moderates, even traditional conservatives from a potential popular front from the outset doesn’t seem the best idea to build a coalition against fascism.
And, as a more a general point about those who kick off at protests, when things spiral into smashing windows or setting fire to bins or punching one guy, what does it actually achieve?
The corporation whose window you broke won’t give a damn – it’s insured.
The people who you’re protesting against will be more likely to dismiss you as thugs rather than listen to you.
Those who have been attacked will become emboldened and martyrs for their cause, potentially attracting more support to their side.
The media, instead of focusing on your messages and campaign, will focus on the few acts of violence.
Think about it. How many times have you seen footage of a protest or march where, instead of interviewing the leaders or reporting on the protesters messages or why the campaign is happening, focus has been on a few juvenile (in all senses of the word) anarchists in balaclavas hurling bricks at the front and “clashes with police”?
What has practically been achieved there? Apart from feeling a bit macho and edgy for sticking it to “the man”, what has it done to further the cause you are supporting and undermine the cause you are opposing?
The answer is 100% of nothing.
It’s pathetic, it’s childish, and it doesn’t help the cause move forward an inch. It’s disorganised, undirected anger which will become short hand used by your enemies to dismiss you at every opportunity.
Which brings me to the delightful Mr Spencer getting punched in the face.
While satisfying and funny in a cathartic way, let’s think about what the consequences of it were:
Firstly, all the commentators on the left immediately focused on the punch, rather than the wider protests and their message.
Secondly, this loathsome obscure little fascist was suddenly given a level of attention and publicity that he likely never had at any point previously in his grubby little hatemongering career.
And finally, he now has a bruise that he can use as a badge of honour and act like a martyr to his cause.
If you are a disillusioned young American angry at the mainstream of politics and on the verge of flirting with the far right, seeing a representative of the far right who outwardly appears to have been a respectable, suited politician saying the kind of things you want to hear, suddenly being attacked is likely to make you more sympathetic towards them, not less.
The straw man argument that those of us who point out this futility of violence are advocating hugging and listening to fascists is a nonsense, but so is the argument that violence is the only thing that has ever beaten the far right. In times of actual war and conflict, responding to fascist aggression with violence is right and justified, but the rest of the time, it is at best futile and at worst counter-productive.
There is actually a far more effective way of fighting fascism: mockery.
From Chaplin parodying Hitler in “The Great Dictator” to PG Wodehouse’s mockery of Mosley, humour and satire have always been an essential part of discrediting fascism.
It wasn’t street protests and no-platforming that led to the collapse of the BNP and Nick Griffin, it was the opposite. His media appearances, from Question Time to his bizarre cooking videos on YouTube, exposed his horrific views and meagre intellect to public mockery, and, as he floundered and tied himself in knots trying to explain that “The KKK aren’t racist or violent” or what he meant by “the indigenous population”, he did more damage to his credibility and organisation than a million punches.
We’ve seen the same thing happen with other groups. From viral videos showing up the EDL as inebriated football hooligans ranting nonsensically about “Muslamics”, to Britain First’s BBC3 documentary that would probably be best summarised as a kind of fascist “This is Spinal Tap”, there has rarely been an example where media exposure of fascist groups has made them look anything other than absolutely ridiculous.
The celebrated occasion of the men following a KKK march while playing a wacky tuba song is another, brilliant example of this, turning a group that was feared, even respected in some quarters, into something patently absurd.
The simple fact of the matter is that if someone is attacked, or acts on their beliefs violently, there will still be people who believe in their cause and want to follow them, but if someone is a figure of ridicule, mocked constantly to the point their very name invites chuckles, it becomes impossible for anyone to respect them and makes it far more likely they will just fade away into irrelevance.
So, if you are in a violent context, and they throw the first punch, by all means get stuck in, but on most occasions, thin skins will take greater damage from sharp words than sharp knives, and hitting them with a custard pie is likely to do more than hitting them with your fists.